Infinite Jest, Digested: Part Two

Last time, I mentioned that the two main hurdles I had to
deal with in reading Infinite Jest were how to deal with the length and how to
deal with the endnotes. I yammered on about the length last time, but I forgot
to yammer about the endnotes. So here goes.*

At first, I read them as they came, flipping back and forth.
This probably lasted until Himself’s filmography. After that I just read the
main text straight and dipped into the endnotes as my whims saw fit. This meant
I skipped ahead a lot in my footnote chronology and that after finishing the
main text, I had to retreat to make sure I had seen everything. I simply grew
tired of the flipping back and forth to read the pharmaceutical information,
for instance. And when I just could not continue with the main text for
whatever reason (boredom, only a few minutes of spare reading time, ADHD, etc.)
I would jump into the footnotes, sometimes where I’d left off previously,
sometimes in a totally different spot altogether. Though I realize that this is
not how the book was meant to be read, i.e., how the information was
specifically arranged, I don’t think my hopping around caused too much trouble,
reading comprehension-wise. (I realize that someone reading this might beg to
differ.) I think of Alice Munro, who in an introduction to her Selected Stories
said that she didn’t really pay attention to chronology in stories. She skipped
around in her reading, jumping into middles, entering through endings, etc. And
I’ve done this too, but only really on second readings, where I want to savor
or re-experience a certain paragraph.

All of which triggers an idea: aren’t books intrinsically
chronological? Not just the idea of a plot with its this-happens-before-that
quality but the very physical form of the pages (this
before that!) and the actual words of the English sentence itself. Play with
chronology as we might, permeate the origami folds of consciousness as best we
can—and I realize there are plenty of plotless texts to contradict my
chronology idea, books like Michael Martone’s The Blue Guide to Indiana, which
imitates an actual guidebook and abandons any conventional idea of a plotted
narrative altogether, but in doing away with one set of conventions seizes a
whole new set of conventions, the guidebook’s; there’s also Nicholson Baker,
who I don’t think has abandoned plot so much (The Mezzanine, Room Temperature)
as he has drilled so far inside plot that his novels exist in the interstitial
sections between conventional scenes: they’re the consciousness of characters
between moments (which is why Wallace’s newest short story, “Good People,”
which appeared in the New Yorker this week, strikes me as fundamentally
Bakeresque)—isn’t textual literature helplessly chronological at least at the
micro level? Unlike paintings, novels must be
digested over a duration
of time rather than be perceived all at once, which means reading becomes more
an experience in itself, like playing a sport or exercising, rather than
becoming a single, epiphanic moment. Because reading is always a journey, a
trip through a book, aren’t books necessarily chronological even if the stories
inside them are not? And what happens if you break that chronology?

I first thought the endnotes were like the internet, with
the linking between bits, but now after reading the book I think they’re just
inherently bookish, meaning they exaggerate the fact that the story is mediated
by a book. The internet continually burrows within itself, so that the more you
link the further you get away from the original text/page. This is why I never understand
why people are so crazy about linking inside their articles. Why would you want
people to go away from what they’re reading? Isn’t the whole point of writing
to solidify communication, to hazard a bridge between two selves, if briefly,
and to keep them reading, to keep them listening to you, to hear what you have
to say, rather than to distract them on purpose from your own purpose?

Though there are some endnotes that have their own
footnotes, a real internet-like story would be intolerable (I think) because
you’d never get back to the original page/site/story. You’d always just further
link inward, your attention further focused but also further diffused from your
original purpose. (But then, well, we never get back to Hal as he is in that
first chapter, do we? Hmm. Perhaps we should strike this paragraph from the
record. I’ve just royally confused myself. [See, this is the problem with these
interpretive posts; one thought swoops in to kill another before the first thought
has gotten mature enough to defend itself. (And going all meta and inward bound
doesn’t resuscitate anything.)])

So but back on the interpretive track, I’ve begun to think
of the endnotes as not like links but actually as like tennis itself, with its
volleying between two sides of a story/net. This analogy probably works best in
Wallace’s essays with footnotes, where a real call and response is set up. I
also think of two guitar lines working together in the same song, like in good
James Brown. But also here, with the endnotes, some of which contain vital plot
information and scenes, some of which are wholly extra (the pharmaceutical
information) and don’t really help out but just give you more data, if you’re
into that sort of thing—the endnotes contain their own stories so that you get
a story within a story going, the main text with the endnote text inside it,
which of course mirrors other annular/involuted bits in the novel as a whole:
the mold growing on mold, the incredibly potent DMZ as acid on acid, etc. Here
it’s stories within stories within stories. But all this inner spinning of
narrative is contained within the fencing of the book.

Except of course when it isn’t, like with the ending, the
phantom limb of plot, all those tennis balls smacked over the fence, and only
we can go find them.

*And actually, with its by-the-way quality, with its oh-I-should’ve-told-you
logic, this post is more of an endnote itself than an actual free-standing
post. More of those kind to come.

Infinite Jest, Digested: Part One

—Barrett Hathcock



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